Kids for Sale

Nancy Marie Brown
May 01, 2000

In one of his four books on youth, Henry Giroux cites a 1997 Public Agenda report called "Kids These Days." Two-thirds of the adults surveyed thought kids today were "rude, irresponsible, and wild."

young boy wearing Hershey’s t-shirt and Trek cap

Kids for Sale

More than half said "young people will make the world either a worse place or no different when they become adults."

It wasn't like that when Giroux was a kid. The late '50s and early '60s "seemed more open," he writes. "Dreams of social and economic mobility did not appear out of reach, as they do for so many young people today."

Not that he had it easy. At the age of eight, I became a shoeshine boy and staked out a route inhabited by black and white nightclubs in Providence, Rhode Island, he writes. His mother suffered from epilepsy. His sister was sent to an orphanage. He doesn't mention his father. On Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights I started my route about 7:00 p.m. and got home around 12:00 a.m. I loved going into the bars watching adults dance, drink, steal furtive glances from each other. Most of all I loved the music. . . . I had to navigate a dangerous set of streets to get back home. I learned how to talk, negotiate, and defend myself along that route. I was too skinny as a kid to be a tough guy; I had to learn a street code that was funny but smart, fast but not insulting. That's when my body and head started working together.

In 1992 Giroux joined Penn State's College of Education as the Waterbury Chair in Secondary Education. Now he wears Armani jackets and listens to John Coltraine on CD. He's been married twice and has three kids, all boys and—oddly—all the same age, now 13 (two twins, the third is adopted). He's written 200-some articles and 20 books, is editor of the Review of Pedagogy and Culture Studies and of four book series. He's won a Getty Research Institute Visiting Scholar Award and was selected for the Laureate Chapter of Kappa Delta Pi (along with Derek Bok, Jonathan Kozol, and six others considered "the finest leaders in educational theory, research, and practice" according to the award notice). He drops the word pedagogy into conversation as easily as he used to sing out shoeshine! Each semester, he teaches an honors course in education at Penn State on The Crisis of Youth: "I don't teach them methods, I teach them how to engage social issues," he told me in an interview, "to have a greater sense of what it might mean to be in a world in which their opinions matter and can be debated." Summers, he teaches at the Art Institute of Chicago: "I take issue with them," he said of the art students, "I tell them, 'Hey, your work has an educational function. Can that be dismissed by saying, (a) I'm an artist, or (b) I'm a genius?'"

When Giroux grew up, youth were still the hope of the future, a force for social change. Now they're not. They're seen as "rude, irresponsible, and wild." At first it was only "marginalized kids—black, brown, inner city kids." Now it's white kids too who are seen as "both troubled and troubling," Giroux writes, as "criminal, sexually decadent, drug-crazed, and illiterate," as a force that needs to be "contained," or even "punished," as "potential muggers or dead from the neck up," as "increasingly disposable" and "a threat to middle-class life—or else, cynically, as "a new market niche."

"I wrote four books: Fugitive Cultures, Channel Surfing, The Mouse that Roared, and Stealing Innocence," Giroux told me. "I used eight years of my life to take up this question of what is happening to youth in this country." The four books focus on popular culture: films from Aladdin to Pulp Fiction, child beauty pageants of the JonBenet Ramsey type, Disney World and the company town of Celebration, radio talk show hosts as the new "public intellectuals," the media coverage of the O. J. Simpson trial and the book The Bell Curve, and Calvin Klein's "heroin chic" ad campaigns.

"I don't think the problem is with the kids," Giroux concluded, "I think the problem is with the adults."

His speech is fast, jagged, passionate, and proud. It has the staccato force of a basketball echoing in an empty gym, like the gym at St. Patrick's Elementary that he and his friends broke into one night back in Providence. As he wrote, back then the cops who found us knew we were there to play basketball rather than to steal money from the teachers' rooms or Coke machine. They weren't strip-searched or arrested for trespassing, they were just thrown out.

Now, he writes, "what's changing, if not disappearing, is the productive social bonds between adults and children." We've replaced "the discourse of hope with the rhetoric of cynicism and disdain." The state has become "hollowed out." Only its "most brutal apparatuses—police, prisons, etc.—remain intact," Giroux writes. "Children increasingly find themselves isolated and removed from the discourses of community and compassion."

"A culture of cynicism has emerged that is so profound," he told me. "If you don't have a sense of the tension between what is and what ought to be, then politics ends up being cynicism.

Eric Weiner

Eric Weiner

Henry Giroux

Henry Giroux

"I can't believe in a democracy that doesn't have hope," he added, "that doesn't believe in a future that will get better for all of us." He has a spacious office lined with books; its window looks out on a wall. He strives to be a "public intellectual." He considers himself, along with all teachers and artists and writers and entertainers, to be a "cultural worker," someone who "takes the relationship between history, culture, power, and politics seriously. In part," he said, "this suggests making learning a fundamental part of social change."

"I want kids to learn to govern, not to be governed," he told me. "My role is immensely political. For me, if you're going to talk about schools, you cannot not talk about democracy, about educating students to be critical citizens. There's a correlation between what they learn and what they are.

"But to say school is political is not to say we should teach Marx. We should engage kids in questions of values, questions of ethics. We should expand their common sense. We should challenge what they perceive as common sense.

"We need to give them the knowledge both to read the world and to change it." Or, as he writes, the ability "to narrate themselves as critical agents, capable of making history, rather than simply being carried away by it."

When his three boys were six years old, they discovered Disney. They lobbied hard to be allowed to see the movies all their friends were talking about.

"So we went." Giroux smiled. "Of course I wasn't going to let them go by themselves. I said, 'Okay, we're going to watch them—but we're going to talk about them." It was the same way he dealt with the ads on TV: Okay, boys, let's see what they're trying to sell us.

And he knew he'd succeeded when one of his boys remarked, as they exited the theater after seeing The Lion King, "Did you notice, Dad, the way the hyenas all talked like working-class blacks?"

"Schools are no longer the major educator in this country," Giroux told me. "The real learning takes place vis-a-vis the TV, the video game, the computer game. For many kids, school is just down time. Kids are being educated outside of school in a way they never were before.

"But we no longer understand what our kids are being taught. We have no language for engaging these things. These things are going on in a realm that people don't discuss.

"The question becomes, How do you take seriously those areas of cultural life that have possibilities for educating kids? My work is to rewrite the notion of what we think of as 'serious knowledge.'"

We can't just blithely accept that Disney products live up to their reputation for "promoting fun and games and protecting childhood innocence," for instance, Giroux writes in The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence. We need to treat those animated kiddie flicks "as a subject of intellectual engagement rather than as a series of sights and sounds that wash over us."

What role, he asks in the book, do the Disney animations play "in shaping public memory, national identity, gender roles, and childhood values"? What do they say about who qualifies as an "American"?

Look at the lead characters in The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Mulan. Three strong, engaging female characters—or are they? Writes Giroux, "All of the female characters in these films are ultimately subordinate to males and define their power and desire almost exclusively in terms of dominant male narratives." Ariel the Mermaid earns the reward of marriage to "the right man" in exchange for renouncing her life under the sea. Belle the Beauty "simply becomes another woman whose life is valued for solving a man's problems." The warrior Mulan may be independent and strong-willed, "but the ultimate payoff for her bravery comes in the form of catching the handsome son of a general."

What of the issues of class and race, as taught by Aladdin and The Lion King? What do children learn from lyrics like "I come from a land . . . / Where they cut off your ear / If they don't like your face. / It's bar-baric, but hey, it's home"? What do they learn from the mispronunciation of Arab names and the racial coding of accents, from the substitution of a "nonsensical scrawl" for written Arabic, from the bulbous noses and heavy brows of the evil Arabs—when Aladdin's features are modeled on Tom Cruise? What is the take-home message from the fact that Scar, the evil upstart in The Lion King, is darker than the good lions? That the hyenas talk jive? That the lion king is king, not president—that a caste-structured, race-based monarchy is the natural order of things? As Giroux writes, "Children are taught that characters who do not bear the imprint of white, middle-class ethnicity are culturally deviant, inferior, unintelligent, and a threat."

So what?, you may say, it's just a story. But it's not. It's a story, and it's a doll. It's a TV show and a computer game. It's a set of sheets and an emblem on a backpack. It's Halloween costumes and candy wrappers. It's sand buckets and sunglasses and ball-caps and T-shirts and dinnerware and lunch boxes and book covers and billboards on the buses and the walls of the schools. It is their America.

barefoot boy riding bicycle in grass

When kids raised on Disney are asked to define "democracy," Giroux reports, they tell the pollsters that democracy means the freedom to buy whatever I want. For those kids who do not look like Tom Cruise, who do not live in a split-level in the suburbs and ride around in a minivan, who do not have a mid-Western accent, the only way to join "American culture" is to buy the product.

"For the first time in our lives," Giroux told me, "the commercialism of the public sphere poses a real threat to public life. It has no language for community outside of consuming communities."

In corporate culture, the bottom line is what matters. As Giroux writes, "Walt Disney imagineers have little to do with ‘dreaming' a better world. . . . Fantasy is a marketing device." It matters little to the corporation what exactly children learn about "freedom, rites of passage, intolerance, choice, greed, and the brutalities of male chauvinism," as long as the product—film or trinket—sells. Citizenship, Giroux writes, "is portrayed as an utterly privatized affair whose aim is to produce competitive self-interested individuals vying for their own material and ideological gain." What's missing from the Disney school are "those values representative of civil society that cannot be measured in commercial terms but that are critical to democracy, values such as justice, freedom, equality, health, respect, and the rights of citizens as equal and free human beings." Instead, "consumerism appears to be the only kind of citizenship being offered." You are what you buy. The one with the most toys wins.

Some 20 million American children are growing up poor. They can't afford an Aladdin doll or a Lion King lunchbox.

At the same time, corporate culture "makes a constant spectacle of children's bodies." Giroux writes in Stealing Innocence: Youth, Corporate Power, and the Politics of Culture, "Corporations such as Calvin Klein trade on the appeal of childhood innocence by exploiting its sexual potential in order to sell cologne, underwear, and jeans. Slick, high-end fashion magazines offer up Lolita-like 14-year-olds as the newest super-models and sex symbols." In these magazines and ads, "innocence is reduced to an aesthetic or a psychological trope that prompts adults to develop the child in themselves, adopt teen fashions, and buy a range of services designed to make them look younger."

And most American adults think nothing of it. Instead, at beauty pageants across America, children like the late JonBenet Ramsey learn "about pleasure, desire, and the roles they might assume in an adult society," Giroux writes. Upon the child's tragic death, "Night after night the major television networks aired videotapes of little JonBenet Ramsey in a tight, off-the-shoulder dress, bright red lipstick, and teased, bleached blond hair pulling a feathered Mardi Gras mask coyly across her eyes as she sashayed down a runway. Playing the role of an alluring sex kitten, JonBenet seemed to belie the assumption that the voyeuristic fascination with the sexualized child was confined to the margins of society, inhabited largely by freaks and psychopaths." Newsman Dan Rather was one of the few adults to publicly object, calling the TV coverage "kiddie porn." At the same time, wonders Giroux, Why were the networks so fascinated with this child and not with the fate of "Girl X," a nine-year-old African American child who, at about the same time JonBenet died, was "raped, beaten, blinded, murdered, and dumped in a stairwell in the rundown Cabrini Green Housing Project in Chicago"?

Beauty pageants are a billion-dollar-a-year industry, Giroux reports, with sponsors like Procter and Gamble, Black Velvet, and Hawaiian Tropics. "An estimated 3,000 pageants a year are held in the United States in which more than 100,000 children under the age of 12 compete." Pageants "build self-esteem in children, 'help them to overcome shyness, and [teach them how] to grow up,'" parents and industry representatives claim. Yet, notes Giroux, "Self-esteem in this context means embracing rather than critically challenging a gender code that rewards little girls for their looks, submissiveness, and sex appeal."

But there have always been beauty pageants, you may say. Look again. Times have changed. Viewing a Sixty Minutes program contrasting clips from a 1977 pageant and one today was "both obscene and informative," Giroux writes. "The children in the 1977 pageants wore little-girl dresses and ribbons in their hair; they embodied a childlike innocence as they displayed their little-girl talents—singing, tap, and baton twirling. Not so with the more recent pageant shots. The contestants did not look like little girls but rather like coquettish young women whose talents were reduced to an ability to move suggestively across the stage."

And what will these sexualized children grow into? "How we understand and come to know ourselves and others cannot be separated from how we are represented and imagine ourselves," Giroux writes in Channel Surfing: Racism, the Media, and the Destruction of Today's Youth.

Today's role models are the "sticklike, expressionless, and blank-eyed" fashion models currently selling cologne by baring their belly buttons. Or the teens seen in popular films like River's Edge, My Own Private Idaho, and Natural Born Killers, in which, Giroux writes, "white youth are framed and presented through the degrading textural registers of pathological vio-lence, a deadening moral vacuum, and a paralyzing indifference to the present and the future." In these films, "Sexuality is defined either as a commodity or as a problem." Even in "art" films like Kids, written by a teenager, sexuality "becomes a metaphor for insincerity, crudeness, violence, and death. . . . [It] is a negative force in teens' lives."

And it is a negative force—not sexuality itself, but what kids are taught about sexuality. From beauty pageants to perfume ads to cinema, such images "purge desire of its constitutive possibilities (desire as more than pathology and as an enabling force for love, solidarity, and community)," Giroux writes, and "celebrate an excessive hedonism that rejects personal and social responsibility."

Fugitive Cultures: Race, Violence, and Youth, "whereas self-promotion and violent action remain two of the few options for exercising human agency."

Again, you protest, there have always been bloody films. Think of Clint Eastwood. Yet in his Unforgiven, like in Schindler's List, the violence is "symbolic," Giroux explains. It "probes the complex contradictions that shape human agency, the limits of rationality, and the existential issues that tie us to other human beings and a broader social world." It "has consequences por-trayed in the film that connect morality and human agency." It allows the viewer "to identify with the suffering of others, display empathy, and bring their own ethical commitments to bear."

Pulp Fiction, on the other hand, presents "an endless stream of characters who thrive in a moral limbo and define themselves by embracing senseless acts of violence as a defining principle of life legitimated by a hard dose of cruelty and cynicism." Such hyper-real violence, as Giroux names it, "represents more than moral indifference coupled with cultural slumming. The form and content of the new hyper-real films go beyond emptying representations of violence of any ethical content; they also legitimate rather than contest, by virtue of their documentary appeal to what is, the spreading acts of symbolic and real violence rooted in and shaped by a larger racist culture."

Indeed, if analyzed closely—if taken "as a subject of intellectual engagement rather than as a series of sights and sounds that wash over us"—Tarantino's Pulp Fiction is not only "marked by technological overstimulation, gritty dialogue, dramatic storytelling, parody, and an appeal to gutsy realism," it is also excruciatingly racist. Take the characters Marcellus, the black drug czar played by Ving Rhames, and Butch, the white boxer played by Bruce Willis. Imagine the scene in the S&M dungeon beneath the pawn shop. Could those roles have been reversed? Could the white character have been the one tortured and degraded and the black one the hero?

"For all of his technical, cinematic virtuosity," Giroux says of Tarantino, "he cannot escape the surfacing of his own politics and values in the film's narrative structure, in characterization, and in dialogue." In spite of his "gutsy realism," he "betrays a profoundly white and suburban sensibility by depicting the two black characters in Pulp Fiction as a drug dealer and a gangster hit man."

And on top of the racism, there's the violence.

Tarantino has said, Violence in real life is one of the worst aspects of America. But in movies—it's . . . one of the funniest, coolest things for me to watch. I get a kick out of it—all right?

It's a false assumption, Giroux argues, that violence can be distanced from reality. It's what he calls "cinematic amoralism." Films—no matter what the filmmaker intends—don't just give viewers a "kick," they affect how we see ourselves and our world. They are "teaching machines." And filmmakers know it. Michael Eisner, the president of Walt Disney, for instance, has suggested that "American entertainment" was responsible for the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. Wrote Eisner: But it may not be such an exaggeration to appreciate the role of the American entertainment industry in helping to change history. The Berlin Wall was destroyed not by the force of Western arms but by the force of Western ideas. And what was the delivery system for those ideas? It has to be admitted that to an important degree it was by American entertainment. In the same way, Giroux argues, violent and racist entertainment like Tarantino's Pulp Fiction "offers viewers brutal and grotesque images that articulate with broader public discourses regarding how children and adults relate, care, and respond to others."

Yet as a teacher of artists, Giroux does have sympathy for the filmmaker himself. For Tarantino, too, is a product of his culture. As Giroux told me in an interview, "Many artists are trapped. They're trapped in the tradition of the genius. They look at their work in the tradition of 'freedom of expression.' It's a tradition that completely extracts itself from equity and completely ties itself to excellence. They believe the genius of their work doesn't have to be responsible to the public.

"I take issue with that. I believe artists are best when they're accountable to the world. The work they do is part of a public space. It must be honest.

"I'm not talking about censorship," he continued, "I'm talking about dialogue"—which is increasingly difficult, given our current political mindset, in which certain basic questions—such as, How do we teach morality?—are turned into confrontational yes-or-no, all-or-nothing questions, such as, Should there be prayer in schools?

Said Giroux, "I place myself on the left, in the tradition that extends from Jefferson to Eugene Debs. I'm somebody who takes seriously the promises of liberalism: liberty, equality, freedom.

"But the left is very hesitant to talk about ethics and moral responsibility. They think you're dictating a particular moral stance, as opposed to saying you have to assume responsibility for what you do, to link the consequences of what you do to questions of democracy. Do your actions expand or close down democracy?

"As Vaclav Havel says, you can't have a democracy without a public conversation. We have to revive that."

Eric Weiner, Giroux's research assistant, has three silver hoops in his left ear, a silver stud in his right. He came to my office one afternoon in a black silk shirt and jeans, high black motorcycle boots. He rolled up his sleeves to reveal a handsome silver bracelet stamped with Native American patterns. He has a stubble beard and mustache; his dark hair is tipped with blond streaks. He'd never pass at Disney World, I joked.

He laughed. He wouldn't even get an interview. Both of us had read in Giroux's book The Mouse That Roared about the restrictions Disney put on Penn State students hoping to attend an "informational session" on campus, preparatory to applying for an interview. Men like Weiner were to wear suits in a fabric "traditionally acccepted for business." No necklaces, bracelets, or earrings. No mustache, beard, or hair over the ears. No "extreme look." Disney World, in Giroux's reading, doesn't want its guests to "have to deal with difference."

Which is exactly what Giroux does want his students to do. Deal with difference. "Learn to make a distinction between polemics, which sets up the Other as an enemy to be obliterated, and antagonisms," as he told me. "Respect the right of the individual to have an opinion." Or a look.

Said Weiner, "He's the most intelligent man I know. I think his work is unbelievably important. He can connect things, put things together, so that you see them differently." By focusing on Disney and their application process, we see how culture—whether a film or a dresscode—can teach us what is "normal" and what is "strange."

"Put very simply," Weiner says, "Henry shows how 'normal' is a concept that has no meaning outside of a very specific socio-political context."

What Giroux hopes to do—with his undergraduate education students, with his art students in Chicago, with graduate students like Weiner, and through his writing—is just this: make people think about "the commonsense assumptions, practices, and contradictions" of our lives. As he told me, "You shape people's consciousness so they see things in a way they didn't before. You provide alternate opinions. You plant seeds."

And by planting those seeds, you encourage hope.

"One of the things Henry is known for," Weiner said, "is what he calls the language of possibility." He leaned back, crossed one black boot over his knee. "Henry made a very astute observation. He pointed out that the Left is very good at social critique, but not as well-versed in possibility. The Right, on the other hand, is very good at possibility, but not at social critique.

"What do I mean by possibility? The opportunity for change. The opportunity for engagement. The possibility of living in a more free, humane society, for developing a critical consciousness of how you relate to the world, for developing a political stance that is not just about reform." Henry's work is very invested in this notion of hope and possibility.

"And what fuels this is his idea that domination is leaky. Power is never total. There are always cracks. There are always people resisting what appears to be this inescapable moment in time." Think of fanzines, alternative radio, student newspapers, home videos, the Internet. The new electronic technologies allow kids to immerse themselves in profoundly important forms of social communication, Giroux writes. They let kids produce a range of creative expres-sions, and exhibit forms of agency that are both pleasurable and empowering.

"Henry comes from a history background," Weiner explained. "That lets him assess time and space as a list of conjunctions—and as history shows us, conditions change. They always do. That's where you find the hope and possibility. Without, of course, romanticizing it.

"You can't forget that this neo-liberalism, this condition we are in now, with its focus on individualism, on the bottom line, on the conflation of democracy and capitalism— You can't forget that along with all that comes a politics of fatalism. People say, 'Hey man, things are the way they are and they're not going to change.' And I'm always amazed by that. Because to be fatalistic, well, it's a politically privileged position. To be fatalistic is to fail to recognize the position of privilege you're in. It's to not recognize that things aren't really so bad for you.

"I think there's always hope that things will change. I think you have to have hope. You have to. What else is there?"

A native of Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, Weiner was an English major at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. After graduation, he worked as a copywriter—"doing long-form collateral marketing materials, annual reports, that sort of thing"—before earning a master's in literature, also at UMass: "I did a thesis on—what was it called?" He laughed. "'Magical Realism as a Subversive Discourse.' It was about language." He was always, he said, "a very politically engaged student, and I found myself sort of taken along by the politically engaged faculty," one of whom introduced him to Giroux's work on critical pedagogy. He became a graduate student in Penn State's College of Education to work with Giroux. "I always wanted to change the world," he said, unselfconsciously, "and education is one place that offers unbelievable opportunities to nurture hope and possibilities for the future.

"By helping kids understand history, power, and politics, you offer them the opportunity to engage in and transform the world around them.

"There are no guarantees. But that's not the point.

"There are no guarantees things are going to turn out the way you want, but at least you have the struggle. It's the struggle that's important."

Henry Giroux, D.A., holds the Waterbury Chair in Secondary Education in the College of Education, 217 Chambers Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-2214; His research assistant, Eric Weiner, is a doctoral student in curriculum and instruction; Quotes from Giroux's writings were taken from the books Fugitive Cultures: Race, Violence, and Youth (Routledge, 1996), Channel Surfing: Racism, the Media, and the Destruction of Today's Youth (St. Martin's Griffin, 1998), The Mouse that Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence (Rowman and Littlefield, 1999), and Stealing Innocence: Youth, Corporate Power, and the Politics of Culture (St. Martin's Press, 2000), and from the pamphlet, Corporate Culture and the Attack on Higher Education and Public Schooling, published by Phi Delta Kappa in 1999.

Last Updated May 01, 2000